“There’s just something organic about doing things in-camera, the way all of the elements come together. The way the glass and light reacts to the aberration the Lensbaby creates, you get this end product that is so much more satisfying and higher quality in the end.”
Jay Hunter served as Director of Photography on Joss Whedon’s new film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” opening in theaters today. He worked alongside Joss Whedon as the 2nd Unit Director of Photography on Whedon’s television show “Dollhouse” which eventually led to their collaboration on “Much Ado About Nothing.” A longtime Lensbaby shooter, Jay shot all of the flashback scenes in “Much Ado About Nothing” with a Lensbaby. Read on to learn more about that process, what it’s like to work with Joss Whedon, and what else Jay has in store.
Joss Whedon is one of Hollywood’s top creators, scripting several hit films including Marvel’s “The Avengers” and creating some of television’s most critically praised and fan-favorite shows, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly,” “Dollhouse” and others.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is a very stylized and modern interpretation of Shakespeare. Can you take us through the overarching vision going into the project and how that affected your camera and lens choices?
We wanted to shoot handheld & digitally, occasionally with multiple cameras but quite often the A camera (a RED Epic) would immerse itself in the scene and move around organically with the actors. Compare that to the standard approach to Shakespeare, which we felt is shooting on a dolly with a long lens, set back from the actors – very classical and elegant so to speak. We wanted to give it a new aesthetic. We looked at French New Wave filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut to see how they shook up cinema and gave this immediacy to their imagery. No one has done Shakespeare handheld as far as we know.
Joss just said he wanted to do it in black and white, so I didn’t argue there. Also, we didn’t have money to be picky about color, wardrobe, set design, etc. Taking that element out simplified things and let us focus our energies elsewhere. It also let us put the film into a totally different world that has nothing to do with reality. When something’s in black and white, your brain can focus on the story and not be distracted by comparing this world to the real world. It creates more of an active audience because you can focus more on the storytelling, base imagery and tonal values.
Joss preconceived the entire film in his head. He had every scene pre-blocked and staged in his brain. So with all that taken care of, we could start to work out how to approach the scenes in terms of lens work. There are a lot of flashbacks in the film that aren’t in the play so to speak. Shakespeare plays have little to no stage direction so it’s mostly up to the director and producer to present it in whatever blocking they desire. Joss really took that to heart and used it to his advantage. I’ve never heard of a production of Much Ado About Nothing showing the flashbacks, they’re normally just implied. Joss wanted to show those moments to give the audience a different take so I suggested using the Lensbaby to differentiate the flashbacks.
Why did you decide to use a Lensbaby for the flashback scenes and which Lensbaby lens did you use?
I really love what the Lensbaby does to send you into an abstract world. By defocusing and warping the frame while leaving portions of the image sharp, it directs your eye to certain moments but also creates a dream state right out of the box. I used the Composer with Double Glass on a Canon 7D. Joss was familiar with Lensbaby because I’d used it on two episodes of [his TV show] Dollhouse – but he wasn’t extensively experienced with it so he was a bit hesitant at first. So, the first time we used it in a flashback scene, I framed it up, and told him we could use a straight lens if he didn’t love it. But Joss looked at it and said it was perfect, it just clicked for him, there was no discussion afterward. It just became the way we were going to shoot all of the flashbacks in the film.
There’s just something organic about doing things in-camera, the way all of the elements come together. The way the glass and light reacts to the aberration the Lensbaby creates, you get this end product that is so much more satisfying and higher quality in the end (not to mention way less time consuming and expensive) than trying to replicate it in post.
“I really love what the Lensbaby does to send you into an abstract world. By defocusing and warping the frame while leaving portions of the image sharp, it directs your eye to certain moments but also creates a dream state right out of the box.”
How did the rest of the film’s team respond to you shooting with the Lensbaby?
Shooting with the Lensbaby on the Canon 7D is so small and unassuming. If you had a larger more cumbersome tilt/shift lens system you’d have more technical annoyances and assistants stepping in to help, messing with the moment. We were shooting this love scene without sound and it was just me, Joss and the actors. Having a camera and lens that’s so small and compact made it feel like we were shooting a home movie or something, it wasn’t intimidating to the actors at all. I feel like we got a certain vibe out of it because we were using the Lensbaby.
The film was shot over the course 12 days. How did the tight schedule affect your process, and did it lead to any interesting solutions or surprises?
Shakespeare dialog is rather dense so a page of it can equate to four minutes of screen time (vs one minute for normal dialogue). It was challenging for the actors because so much of that vocabulary is alien to how we speak these days. The actors did a fantastic job though. In 12 days you don’t have much time to do anything except shoot and run to the next scene & shoot and run again. At the end of main characters Beatrice & Benedick’s central, epic scene, complete with crying, love, happiness, a full range of emotions, Joss said cut, and then I had to literally run past the actors, still in their zone, with the camera to shoot the funeral procession in the backyard because we had about 12 minutes of daylight left, and the tight shooting schedule left no room for reshoots.
I yelled and screamed directions, we pointed cameras, and this amazing fog rolled in and we shot the whole scene in 12-13 minutes and it ended up being the perfect time…two minutes later it wouldn’t have worked. We also got a bonus shot at the end with Beatrice & Hero looking over the railing gazing upon the funeral procession. The whole crew was gone to dinner, so I just grabbed a ladder, climbed up and started shooting. That became one of our favorite shots of the movie, like something out of an Ingmar Bergman film. And I swear, a moment later it was DARK. Every time Joss and I see that shot we elbow each other and smile. At the time I was probably drenched in sweat, it was so chaotic, but it came out so perfectly.
You’ve used the Lensbaby on lots of TV projects through the years. How do you like to use it in your work as a storytelling device? What situations do you find work well being shot with a Lensbaby?
I like to use it when we’re trying to depict altered states of reality. It creates an otherwordly environment, so if characters are in a dream state or having horrible head trauma or experiencing a psychedelic landscape in their mind, it’s a great way to show the interiority of the subject visually. The other times that I’ve used it have been for selective focus. It’s a good way to draw someone’s eyes to something specific, much like the way depth of field works in general. The great thing about Lensbaby is that you can make seemingly impossible focus happen.
You studied under the legendary experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage during the final years of his life. How did that come about, what was the experience like, and how did it influence you?
I went to the University of Colorado and studied film, and Stan was the celebrity professor at the film school. He set the tone for the film program there, which was very heavily based in experimental & non-narrative film. I took his classes and spent a lot of time around him and he was very influential and exposed me to all of this crazy film that I never even knew existed. Through him I was introduced to the work of Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith and Maya Deren…I was immersed in all their work. He was a fascinating, inspirational person – he loved movies so much, he would see anything that came to the theater – from French character dramas to whatever Hollywood teen comedy was out. It was really impressive to me that a guy who was so high art was just in love with movies of any kind. I felt a kinship because I love Tarkovsy but I also love Spielberg and everyone in between.
What are you currently working on?
I do a lot of commercials, along with films & TV, but my next big project is a feature film called Life after Beth starring Aubrey Plaza and directed by Jeff Baena (who wrote I Heart Huckabees). And whenever Joss calls me up I just say yes Sir, I’m there, and start blocking out my calendar. I always want to be there for him, he’s one of the best out there, one of the most pleasant to work with and one of the most talented. I hope to work on many projects with him in the future.
To keep up with Jay Hunter’s latest projects, visit his web site.